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Amitav Ghosh: The Glass Palace

Ghosh’s parents were Indians who lived in Burma so it is not surprising that this is the subject of this novel, a saga, starting with the British invasion of Upper Burma in 1885 and continuing to the present day. The novel naturally has many characters, mainly fictitious but we start with Rajkumar. At the opening of the novel he is eleven. He is an orphan, his parents having died, like so many others, in an epidemic. He had managed to get a job on a ship that carried freight across the Bay of Bengal, from India to Burma. However, on this occasion, the ship is in need of some repair and the owner cannot afford to pay his crew during this period so they have to find other jobs. Rajkumar manages to get a job assisting a food seller, Ma Cho, his pay consisting of board and lodging. Rajkumar is sharp and keeps in touch with what is going on. When there is a loud boom in the distance, it is he alone who recognises it as the sound of the guns of the approaching British army. While we are following Rajkumar, we are also following the historical royal family. King Thebaw (as Ghosh spells it) will turn out to be the last king of Burma. He had succeeded his father, King Mindon. Before his father’s death, there were at least sixty-nine other possible claimants to the throne so he did not expect to succeed. Indeed, he wanted to be a Buddhist monk and enjoyed nothing as much as Buddhist studies. He has been to a school in Rangoon, already occupied by the British, and learned English. He was suddenly simultaneously married to three women, the second of who was the daughter of one of the King’s consorts, Supayalat. When his father died, his wife and mother-in-law immediately had the other sixty-nine claimants murdered (and a few others, for good measure) and Thebaw became king. During the seven years of his reign, he never left the palace. However, it is Queen Supayalat who effectively rules. However, despite her efforts, the Burmese are no match for the British and the palace falls. When the British temporarily withdraw, the palace is left unguarded and the ordinary people, Rajkumar included, loot it. It is there that he meets Dolly, one of the Queen’s attendants and, though she is only ten, he falls in love with her. He will try and help her the next day when the royal family is sent off to India.

The royal family is sent to India, first to Madras and then to Ratnagiri, along with Dolly and other servants who are orphans and have nowhere else to go. Ghosh will return to them as they adapt to their life in India. In particular, one of the British officials, a collector (i.e. head local official), who, unusually, is Indian and not British, will play a major role and his wife, Uma Dey, will play an even bigger role, both as a friend to Dolly and as a critic of British colonialism and a supporter of Gandhi. Meanwhile, Rajkumar’s career is taking off. Through Ma Cho, Rajkumar meets Saya John. He is both Ma Cho’s teacher and occasional lover. It is he who helps Rajkumar get into the teak business, which has become the main interest of the British in Burma and where the money is to be made. Rajkumar initially makes his money shipping workers over from India to do the hard and dirty work of the teak trade, the Burmese declining to do it but the Indians need the money much more. The workers are also used in the growing oil business. Rajkumar earns enough money to open his own teak yard and he becomes rich and successful (and, of course, marries Dolly.)

All of this story is told against the background of the situation in both India and Burma, with the Burmese resenting the intrusion of Indians into their commercial life and the Indians increasingly wanting to get rid of the British. The story develops with the children of Dolly and Rajkumar on the one hand, and Saya John’s son on the other. It also changes locale somewhat, as the next big thing is rubber and the action moves to Malaya. Ghosh keeps up the excitement with the Japanese invasion of South-East Asia and the rise of Indian nationalism. He more or less ends as Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest by the Burmese generals but is speaking to the people in Burma.

While this is essentially a family saga, set against the background of major changes in India, Burma and Malaya, Ghosh uses it to make his political points, the main one being opposition to colonialism and racism. While criticising British colonialism in South and South-East Asia, Ghosh is not naïve enough to purely point the finger at Britain. While condemning utterly the massive exploitation of the teak forests by the early British colonialists (though failing to mention that the British did at least replant, unlike the generals and their cronies in recent times), he accepts that India was not a paradise before the British got there, with poor treatment of women, the caste system and so on. He also points out the exploitation of the Burmese by the Indians and, indeed, how the Indians exploit each other. We follow the story of those Indians who helped the Japanese, with a view to getting rid of the British and found the Japanese to be worse than the British. Ghosh is quite clear that, however bad the British were, the Japanese were worse. As regards the Burmese, he makes it clear that the generals have caused a lot of harm to their country and its inhabitants. He even mentions that Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, went over to the British but then changed his mind. (Aung San allegedly said that the British treated the Burmese as bullocks, while the Japanese treated them as dogs.) In short, colonialism, while inherently wrong, is a complex subject.

If you are somewhat familiar with the history of British colonialism in that part of the world, you will certainly enjoy this novel more but, even if you are not, it is an entertaining family saga, well told, with unexpected twists and a range of well-drawn characters, mainly but by no means entirely fictitious and interesting locations.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Ravi Dayal